Why is the Arab League silent about Darfur?

Arab and Muslim nations condemn Israel but remain mute in the face of ongoing ethnic cleansing in Sudan.

This week, the Arab League met for its annual ministerial summit and issued a condemnation of Israel for bombing a weapons factory in Sudan. Israel has not admitted destroying the Yarmouk facility on 23 October, because it never confirms or denies such military operations. However, it is accepted by the international community that Israel is the perpetrator. It is also widely believed both inside Sudan and beyond that Yarmouk was making weapons both for and on behalf of Iran, and smuggling them to Hamas in Gaza.

Arab and Muslim countries have responded swiftly and with a united voice, expressing outrage at Israel’s actions. Yet, for almost ten years the same organisations have been mute in the face of the ongoing ethnic cleansing and murder of Muslims in Sudan’s remote western region, Darfur.

It surprises friends in Britain when I explain that Sudan’s avowedly Islamist regime has been ruthlessly ethnically cleansing their fellow Muslims. People assume the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Darfuris have religious roots, Muslim against non-Muslim.

This misapprehension is understandable: for decades Sudan’s rulers tried to ‘Arabise’ and impose their version of Islam on the non-Arab and non-Muslim inhabitants of southern Sudan, resulting in more than two million deaths, and leading to South Sudan’s eventual secession last year.

No one disputes that Muslims around the world stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people. Equally they are rightly horrified by attacks on European Muslims by far-right racist groups, and by the recent violence against the Muslim minority in Burma. One of the Koran’s central messages is that Muslims must care for each other, showing each other hospitality, charity, protection and solidarity.

Yet, the plight of their fellow Muslims in Darfur has been of little concern for a decade. If any opinion is expressed, it is usually to blame Israel for funding Darfur’s rebels. Khartoum has succeeded in convincing most Arab, Muslim, and even African countries that the bloodshed in Darfur is due to a foreign plot against Khartoum. Depending on their audience, representatives of the regime will frame this conspiracy as colonialist, imperialist or Zionist.

This shameful silence is compounded by commentators and academics in the west who are afraid they will be seen as racist or Zionist for criticising Sudan, a Muslim nation. They therefore explain the violence in Darfur as a consequence of ancient tribal rivalries, and scant economic development, coupled with desertification due to climate change. What they avoid at all costs is suggesting what millions of black Africans know from bitter experience: that in many parts of the Muslim world, black people are regarded as racial inferior.

Racial prejudice is the motive that few dare mention, knowing they will instantly be branded as Zionists or Islamophobic. For many, Darfuris are simply the wrong kind of Muslims because they are black and African. How else can one explain the lack of outrage at the Sudanese regime’s systematic destruction of black African villages in Darfur? The violence in Darfur continues to rage, with the Sudanese armed forces bombing villages while arming its disgruntled local Arab proxies to ethnically cleanse the black African tribes with whom they existed for centuries.

When the Sudanese security forces prevent UNAMID, the international peacekeeping force, from investigating such attacks, those who fund UNAMID, including the British government, remain silent, becoming complicit in the atrocities taking place against Sudanese citizens by its own government. 

Back in July 2004 the UN Security Council passed a resolution giving Khartoum 30 days to bring the Arab militia under control, or to face international action. There have been no consequences for the Sudan regime, and all these years later several similar UN resolutions remain unenforced. Why? Because Sudan can always count on the support of its business partners, Russia and China, and the unquestioning backing of Arab and Muslim nations.

Arab and Muslim nations show legitimate concern for the plight of the Palestinians. It is time for voices in the region to hold Khartoum to account for its years of massive human rights abuses. It tarnishes the reputation of Islam everywhere and makes a mockery of the Koran’s fundamental message.

A Sudanese displaced boy looks at a Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur soldier standing guard. Photograph: Getty Images.

Magdy el-Baghdady is an activist with Waging Peace, which campaigns against human rights violations in Sudan.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland